Turkish Election: An AKP Victory with Limits

Erdogan victory

The unprecedented third consecutive electoral victory won by Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Sunday’s parliamentary elections owes to a widespread feeling of satisfaction with eight years of the Erdogan government’s rule.

According to preliminary results, the party won 50 percent of the vote. This was at the top end of expectations and exceeded the 34 and 47 percent of the vote it won in 2002 and 2007, respectively. The AKP secured 325 of the 550 seats at stake in the Turkish Grand National Assembly. Due to the vagaries of politics in individual constituencies, the AKP’s somewhat higher overall vote total translated to fifteen fewer seats in parliament than it took in 2007. Nevertheless, they will be able to form a new single-party government when the new parliament convenes.

The Republican People’s Party (CHP), which took 135 seats based on 26 percent of the vote, recovered from dismal showings in the last two general elections. The National Action Party (MHP) held onto its core constituency, garnering 13 percent of the vote (versus 14 percent in 2007) and safely got across the country’s ten percent threshold requirement. Independent candidates associated with the largely-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) won 36 seats, up from 19 it garnered in 2007 when the party’s now-banned predecessor, the Democratic Society Party (DTP), first tried the independent candidacy strategy as a way around the threshold requirement.

The vote and the campaigning before it were consistent with what goes on in democracies: lively debates, raucous rhetoric, wild and sometimes goofy campaign promises, and free and fair voting. It is remarkable that virtually all of the ballots were counted before the voting night was over and that at least so far the tabulation process – in the Turkish tradition – seems generally free of accusations of irregularities. While speculation about a “Turkish model” is overblown, Turkey’s experience in conducting well-run elections in which the results are universally accepted is something to which the Arab spring countries will do well to aspire to.

The AKP fell just short of Prime Minister Erdogan’s goal of gaining a supermajority that would have allowed his government more or less to dictate the terms of a new constitution to replace the text drafted at the military’s behest after the 1980 coup. Had the AKP won 367 seats, the AKP could have changed the constitution as it wished by a vote in the parliament. Had it won 330, the party could have approved a new constitution and sent it to a public referendum, where only 50 percent plus one would be required to ratify the text. If the preliminary election results hold and the AKP remains stuck below 330, then any constitutional revision will require bargaining and coalition building with opposition parties or their members.

In effect, Turkish voters used the ultimate “check and balance” of the ballot box to put a limit on the AKP’s power to rewrite the political rules of the road. This may or may not augur well for swift approval of any new constitutional text, but it will be good for Turkish politics that the AKP must now work with others on a constitution that commands support outside of its numbers in parliament. Given concerns about Erdogan’s megalomania and authoritarian tendencies that have gained traction in Turkey in recent months, the outcome is good for Turkish democracy – and probably good for the AKP and Erdogan, too.

The AKP’s success was tempered by the revival of credible opposition. The CHP has started to claw its way back from what had been growing unpopularity, if not irrelevance. Its new leader, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, has articulated progressive, new ideas that attracted voters. His parliamentary block will be younger and probably more progressive than its predecessors. The Kurds’ success is also important. They are well-positioned now to influence debates on the constitution and other policy issues. Whether they can do so depends on the wisdom of party leaders, the extent of terrorist violence this summer and fall by the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), and whether larger parties abandon their ostracism of the BDP and try to find ways to work with it.

Issues of Islam, ethnicity, modernity, civil-military relations and the role of the state in economic life are all now on the table in reasonably constructive ways. The opportunities for Turkey are great.

Turkey’s European Union accession effort may get some encouragement from the vote and from the campaign itself, at least on the domestic side. The CHP abandoned what had become a strident, anti-EU stance. Its new leader publicly reaffirmed support for Turkey in the EU and for particular domestic policy changes, including constitutional reform, that will be required if the EU bid is to remain viable on the Turkish side. It is less obvious that the June 12 election results will change European calculations. One can hope that the spectacle of Turkish democracy in action, and the fact that the ballot box still works as a check on untrammeled executive power, would make Turkey more attractive again to Europeans. Domestic politics within Europe – more than anything else, including anything Turkey can now do – will determine the nature and pace of Turkey’s relationship with the EU.

Turkey emerges from its election as a stronger partner for the United States – both because Erdogan won a strong mandate for continued rule and because voters denied him and his government untrammeled powers. Those arguing that the United States should weigh in on Turkey’s internal politics – never a good idea – ought now to be less concerned. Washington’s focus should be the large and ever more important outward-looking regional agenda on which engagement with Turkey is essential.

  • Syria is the most immediate issue for Turkey. Turks are terrified about the prospect of another Iraq on their southern border – of weak governance, sectarian bloodletting, and a potentially strengthened PKK, some one-third of whose fighters may be Syrian. Less encumbered by nationalist campaign rhetoric, Ankara should now be more willing to work with the United States and others on managing a Syrian transition, and Washington should pursue this.
  • With the campaign over, the AKP government may now be ready to ease tensions with Israel, which it recognizes is a necessary prerequisite for any larger Turkish role on Israel-Arab/Palestinian issues. Foreign Minister Davutoglu seemed, in remarks on the eve of the voting, to distance the government from plans to reprise the flotilla to Gaza that led to a crisis in Turkish-Israeli relations in 2010. Washington should revive efforts to bring Jerusalem and Ankara together.
  • If Russian President Medvedev achieves any kind of breakthrough on Nagorno-Karabakh when he meets with the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan on June 25, Washington should work with others to reengage Turkish-Armenian reconciliation, which will be freed for a time from campaign posturing – and which is essential if an Azeri-Armenian peace deal is to succeed.

In Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan, on the Arab Spring, energy, terrorism, and missile defense, and even on Iran (the now patched-over rupture in 2010 notwithstanding), U.S. and Turkish interests coincide. A confident, democratic Turkey led by a strong government that just secured a convincing – but not too large – electoral mandate will remain a vital partner in a deeply troubled region.

Ross Wilson is Director of the Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center at the Atlantic Council and former Ambassador to Turkey and Azerbaijan. This writing is a follow-on to the author’s piece: "Turkish Elections Primer." Photo credit: Getty Images.

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